Choose life: Shooting Trainspotting

As the iconic 1990s film makes its comeback, photographer Lorenzo Agius shares the story behind his shots for the original campaign

In the 1990s I used to do a lot of work for the film company PolyGram. I was at the Cannes Film Festival and over a glass of wine someone at the company mentioned a new film they were about to launch. It didn't have anyone famous in it – no well-known actors – and it was by a second-time director. There really wasn't much to tell me about it other than it was about the drug culture of the time.

The people making it didn't know how to market it. They wanted to avoid glamorising drugs and were still figuring out how to do the campaign. I was offered the job of doing the photography and they gave me almost total freedom to come up with ideas.

I wasn't used to doing film posters at the time, so I approached it from a fashion-portrait perspective. The images were more about personality and character than promoting the film. My situation was unusual as often film companies employ creatives to come up with wonderful concepts and you then have to make them happen. This was the exception to the rule. No concepts. No ideas.

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(Image credit: 1996 Lorenzo Agius)

I'm a big fan of Richard Avedon and one of my favourite books of his is In The American West, in which he travelled all over the US photographing the everyday people he met. I used this as an initial reference to show the actors in the studio. I took the book in and said, "this is as gritty as I want the shots to look".

They knew where I was coming from in terms of creating a certain atmosphere and look and mood to the shoot, and I also wanted it to be black and white. It was important to me that the aesthetic remained quite classic, iconic and fashion-based rather than promotional, which was very unusual for film posters at the time.

We did the shoot in the middle of the summer of 1995, on one of the hottest days of the year. The actors had been up all night filming – they were exhausted and felt really rough. In a strange way this only added to what I was after from them. They understood the mood I was trying to create, capturing the characters' personalities from the film but ramping it up and pushing it to the extreme.

Most posters glamorise the people in the film; they don't show them in their worst light. I wanted to try and capture the darkness, nastiness and rough side. Robert Carlyle, who played Begbie, was a really tough Glaswegian, who'd had a hard life and everything was a battle for him. He'd developed that character to such a fine point that shooting him in the studio was pretty scary. He came across as aggressive and violent, and stayed in character.

When actors are filming they retain their character's personality to a degree – you can't just shut off from the job at the end of the day.


(Image credit: © Lorenzo Agius)

Jonny Lee Miller's character in Trainspotting was a big James Bond fan, so we pushed the idea of him pretending to be the spy. We recreated all the cliched Bond poses, such as when he points the gun at the camera at the beginning of the movies. The aim was to find a key element in the script and see where we could take it.

With Ewan McGregor we made him soaking wet. If you just saw the picture you'd wonder why, until you watched the film and saw the famous scene where he goes down the toilet on a drug trip.

When you do a shoot you never know the cultural impact your images will have, you just get the job done to your best creative ability and knowhow. The fact that the images became so influential was serendipitous, and down to a many different elements coming together at the same time. It was a clash of great writing, direction and acting, along with that amazing soundtrack and a powerful and unique poster campaign.

When the film was released the impact could be seen everywhere. The campaign became so popular that people ripped it off and there were fashion campaigns, advertisements and even satirical political cartoons in the style of the film. I don't lay claim to coming up with a unique idea – after all, every artist is inspired in life by someone or something greater – but the concept ended up being perfect for the time: an iconic memory.

LORENZO AGIUS is a preeminent fashion and portrait photographer whose images grace the walls of the National Portrait Gallery and the covers of Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, Vogue and many more. He shot to fame in 1996 with his publicity shots for the film Trainspotting and the Cool Britannia issue of Vanity Fair with Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher;

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